I participate in quite a few civic associations and public interest groups. They usually consist of a few public-minded folks who get together monthly to discuss issues of interest to constituents they would like to represent. The folks who show up are hard working, dedicated, and knowledgable people who dedicate their own time (usually many more hours than we see preparing for these meetings and gathering information) because they want to serve. I thank them all for their dedication and their service.
The “problem” is there are very few people who actually participate in these groups. Decisions that perhaps affect the roughly 400,000 residents of Prince William County or perhaps the roughly 54,000 residents of a voting district are made by a half dozen core members plus perhaps a small group of folks galvanized to “stop” something. Decisions are often made by these small groups that are translated into support or disapproval, recommendations for or against forwarded, citizens' time testimony delivered, etc., without the knowledge of the broader constituency that is actually impacted by these decisions.
We need to broaden the ability of residents of Prince William County to participate in the process of contributing their opinions, their energy, their ideas, to the public debate on issues of broad interest. I believe the answer is to offer the option of a “Virtual Civic Association” to leverage the power of social networking to influence public policy and the decisions of our elected officials as well as those they appoint and the staff that they hire.
To that end, a few of us in the Coles District have created the Coles District Civic Association.
The CDCA is a “virtual” civic association. It doesn’t have officers, a board of directors, meetings, minutes, or by-laws. When I attend “brick and mortar” civic associationsm I am always struck by the few folks who participate (and decisions are made by those who show up). I assume this is because most folks are either on the road or recovering from their commute or job, are participating in some school event, or just prefer to sit on the back porch watching the sun go down with their family rather than attend another meeting. With a virtual civic association, you don’t have to show up somewhere to be heard. You can collaborate online.
The CDCA is more of a clearing house for ideas and issues. If you have an issue, simply create a Facebook page and post a link to it here. If others are interested in or support your issue (or “like” it) it will flourish. That page may be used to communicate with one another, discuss the issue and ideas, form strategies, and communicate with our elected officials (who will be invited to join this page and issue pages). If an issue doesn’t get many “likes”...it will perish. That’s ok.
Folks who wish to provide leadership or collaborate on specific issues are free to meet whenever they wish wherever they wish (I always favored Starbucks...with Panera's being my second favorite choice). Personally, my front porch is where I plan to work on issues with small groups...I specialize in really good coffee for such events.
You may also post links to blog posts, newspaper articles, or anything else you think might be of interest to Coles District residents.
Our elected officials, their staff, and the folks that they appoint and hire may monitor and participate in these groups. This changes things considerably. Anyone who has attended a Board of County Supervisors meeting or a Planning Commission meeting knows that very few of the County’s roughly 400,000 attend and even fewer take advantage of citizens' time. Participation in government is left to the folks with the luxury of time, the retired (I’m one of those), the people who have local jobs, the stay at home spouse, and those who have passion for an issue.
This means that our representative government...isn’t. This means that most people...those who are on the road morning and night commuting, or at a soccer game, a school event, a church, mosque, or synagogue service, or whatever...never see the process and are often surprised by the results that impact our lives, our commutes, our businesses, our environment, our property, and our children.
We may also meet up to visit county staff, our Coles District supervisor or our Virginia state delegate as a group. We may also decide to attend BOCS or Planning Commission meetings as a group and collaborate on citizens' time presentations.
I invite members of existing Civic Associations such as LOCCA-PELT, the Mid-County Civic Association, and other groups to join our associations and participate. I also invite our elected officials and those they appoint to join to broaden their understanding of their constituents and our issues and to have access to our ideas. It's a "virtual" citizens' time. The CDCA is one more way for the public and our government (at all levels) to participate. It doesn’t replace “brick and mortar,” it supplements them. We look forward to collaborating virtually to tap the resources and expertise to those who have devoted their lives and energy to developing expertise on public process and policy to help their communities.
Anyone may play. If it doesn’t work, we’ll abandon it and try something else. We will make up the rules as we go along. This is something new...so there are no rules at the moment (other than Facebook's rules). We may not be able to attend as many meetings as we like...but we all tend to make time for Facebook. If you're interested, check us out and like us. I'll see you online!